If you're looking for a great Sierra experience that is "off the beaten track," try Highway 4, also known as the Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway.
This road is one of four scenic paved trans-Sierra routes that are only open from snowmelt until winter. Constructed in the 1860s, the route begins climbing the Sierra foothills in San Joaquin County east of Stockton. It crosses two major summits in the high country of the Sierra: Pacific Grade and Ebbetts Pass. Between Lake Alpine and Markleeville much of the road is about 1½ lanes wide. Watch carefully for oncoming traffic as you round the many curves.
The byway passes through the Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests providing access to state parks, wilderness areas, campgrounds, lakes, hiking trails, fishing and resorts. The bright colors of aspen leaves along the road draw visitors in late October and early November. In the winter the snow is plowed as far as the Highway 207 turnoff to ski lifts at Bear Valley Mountain Resort.
The Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway Association provides a lot of helpful information for planning a trip at www.scenic4.org. A recently published guidebook to the route is also available through the website.
From Merced, the fastest way to access the area is to take J59 north from Snelling to Highway 108. In Jamestown, turn north on Rawhide Road, then north again at Highway 49. You'll join Highway 4 in the historic gold rush town of Angels Camp. From Modesto, travel east on Highway 108 to Jamestown. In Jamestown, turn north on Rawhide Road, then north again at Highway 49. You'll join Highway 4 in the historic gold rush town of Angels Camp.
Campgrounds, both reservable and non-reservable, can be found at www.reserveamerica.com or call (877) 444-6777. Search for "Bear Valley" and you'll get results for most of the route. For lodging, check with the Alpine (www.alpinecounty.com/530-694-2475) and Amador County Chambers of Commerce (www.amadorcountychamber.com/209-223-0350).
One of the best family campgrounds is located at Lake Alpine. Accessed via a steep and winding dirt road, the 35 campsites at Highland Lakes provide a near-wilderness experience at 8,600 feet. The road is graded and accessible to most vehicles if driven carefully. Also off the main route, Spicer Reservoir has nice campsites at the end of an eight-mile paved road. You can fish and enjoy the water at all three campgrounds.
While it is impossible to mention all of the great places to stop along the way, these are some of my favorites:
Sierra Nevada Logging Museum: Located in Arnold, this museum is the place to learn about the logging history of the Sierra Nevada.
Open Thursday-Sunday noon-4, the museum has a great display of logging equipment including a Shay engine used by the Yosemite Logging Company to deliver logs to an incline railroad connecting to the Yosemite Valley Railroad in the Merced River Canyon.
For more information, go to www.sierraloggingmuseum.org or call (209) 795-6782.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park: With nice campgrounds and two groves of giant sequoias, this is a great place to hike and camp. Trails range from easy to challenging. You can learn more atwww.parks.ca.gov or by calling (209) 795-2334.
Hiking: Try the trails at Calaveras Big Trees, Grover Hot Springs, or the 5-mile round trip from Ebbetts Pass to Kinney Lakes.
Markleeville: With a population of only 200, this quaint old mountain town is the county seat of Alpine County and offers food, groceries, gas, and lodging.
Grover Hot Springs State Park: Turn off on Hot Springs Road in Markleeville to soak in family-friendly heated and cool pools. Changing rooms and a campground are available. An easy trail follows Hot Springs Creek for 1½ miles to a nice waterfall. For more information, go to www.parks.ca.gov or call (530) 694-2248.
The park is open throughout the year and accessible from highways 88 and 89 after snow has closed Highway 4.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.